With football season tapping its foot impatiently waiting for August to finish screwing around and the baseball playoff spots largely determined, there remains the Serena Williams Thanks For Coming And Staying So Long Farewell Tour. Given her indisputable Serena-ness and the always-overwrought stage of the U.S. Open, the tournament has been about one thing and one thing only—savoring the last embers of her athletic life.
Which brings us to her opponent tonight, Estonian Anett Kontaveit, or as the headline in today’s New York Times story by the estimable Christopher Clarey reads, “A Struggling Anett Kontaveit.” As this would be the first anyone but the most devoted nethead would have heard of Kontaveit even though she is ranked second in the world, one would be allowed the minor faux pas of asking, But who would name their child A Struggling? Is that some weird Estonian name construction, like A Promising But Not Yet Totally Accomplished, or A Completely Our Of Her Element?
This is not to force you to smarten up on the surreptitiously excellent A Struggling A.K.; you’re on your own there. Tonight’s match, the centerpiece of the second round because it’s the United Serena Open after all, is going to mention her in passing as the person who everyone is rooting to fail in that passive-aggressive tennis way. After all, nobody dislikes A Struggling at all, as she is a skilled player who has built her ranking by winning tournaments that command little attention, but the needs of the sport’s many Serenaphiles must be served, and competitive sport being the binary monster it is, if one must win, one other should lose.
But amid her climb to momentary prominence she came to become known by The Times as A Struggling because she caught a form of long COVID-19 in April, and in June replaced her Russian coach Dmitry Tursunov because, according to her, it was too hard for him to get visas to accompany her to events because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to Clarey, who should know, and one of her new coaches, Torben Beltz, who does know, she is not yet fully fit for tonight’s grand event.
And when we say “grand,” it will be grand for everyone but A Struggling because there won’t be five people in the stadium who isn’t rooting for her to be clinically routed. Having done nothing but excel at her chosen pastime, she will get to feel that invigorating New York backhand as she is now in the way of the fairy tale machine. It will take all the control the gallery has not to rise as one and point at her screaming, We’re going to kick your ass! as though they had something to do with it.
At least that’s what it will feel like because even polite applause sounds accusatory when compared to the engine roar of unconditional love. Not that it shouldn’t be that way—the unconditional love part, we mean. Williams is universally regarded as the zenith of women’s tennis and part of a very small pedestal atop sports’ greatest sports, and given that this is believed to be her last go-round (she’s wearing diamond-studded tennis dresses for this tournament, for Christ’s sake, and you don’t do that for the Budapest Open 125), every point will be savored with the usual maniacal New York energy. Put another way, woe betide the player who gets in the way of the desires of Queen Latifah and Anna Deavere Smith.
Yet fighting against all this throw-weight of idolatry there will be A Struggling, in her highest profile match ever. She may hold only a small place stage left tonight, and her role may be written in Also Receiving Votes agate, but she has something to accomplish tonight, and that is to depress the hell out of everyone who has ever enjoyed Serena Williams’s work and thus become the answer to a trivia question. Nobody will want her to win but her fellow Estonians, but she takes up the task because it is her fate to do so. And if she wins, she will have a memory for life, maybe even a children’s book of her life entitled The Little Two-Seed Who Could. And, though few people will notice, a third-round date with either Evgeniya Rodina or Ajla Tomljanovic.
Realistically, though, that’s the last thing anyone wants because even the most cynical of tennis fans will note that once Tiger Woods stopped owning golf, the sport became a hot and fractious mess with no center and a bunch of swell but ignorable players. So while nothing would be more personally gratifying for her to no longer be referred to as A Struggling, women’s tennis without Serena Williams will feel for awhile like, well, how do we put this politely … a third-round match between A No Longer Struggling Anett Kontaveit and either Evgeniya Rodina or Ajla Tomljanovic. It may not mean much to any of you, but it will be her reward for ending an era.